MEMORIES OF EARLY DAYS
by Norment Custis
Having arrived at the distinction of being both a past president of Sycamore Island and the active member with the most longevity, at least in years of membership and attendance, I've been asked to recall some events and people of the past in celebration of our club's centennial.
My mother and father discovered the club when Horace and Snowden and I were little boys, and our family joined the Sycamore families in an everlasting bond. In the early days we did not own an automobile and so journeyed to Sycamore by street car, boarding at Mt. Pleasant Street, traveling downtown and transferring to the Cabin John car at P Street and riding through Georgetown and out along the canal to Sycamore Island, always laden with picnic gear and in the cool weather with warm weather gear as well. Before leaving Georgetown, the car had to stop over an open pit while a workman removed the plow from under the car and changed the power source to the overhead trolley. (I have always thought that workman suffered through the most unpleasant job in the history of Washington -- winter and summer, rain, cold, snow and sleet.)
If we kids were lucky, we arrived at P Street in time to catch a "summer car" without sides and with cane-covered seats and a long running board on which a conductor passed back and forth, taking up fares. Most of the time we-kids envied the motorman, but in summer we envied the conductor. It seemed so brave for him to be standing on the running board as the car picked up speed and in the rural portion hurtled through space.
The street car stopped a few feet below Conduit Road, now MacArthur Boulevard, and we proceeded down a cinder-strewn slope to the long flight of steps and on towards the bridge over the canal. The steps were longer in those days since there was no switchback path as we have now. Many a potential member hesitated or failed to apply when confronted with the idea of mounting the long flight of steps back up to Conduit Road.
As many a time as we counted them, I can no longer recall the actual number of steps -- one of the many things I have forgotten which I thought I would never forget. But I do remember other things about the steps the pawpaws along the side, the individual styles of the members as they made the grade, the painful steps of Mr. Partridge, as he continued to come to the island long past the time old age had told him to quit, and the mighty efforts of my father who carried my mother up the steps when she was expecting my youngest brothers, Bob and Gregg.
When the street car stopped at the Island stop, we kids always raced ahead. On a particularly lucky day we would get to the bridge in time to watch the mules and the long tow rope and the barges pass under us, and we'd wave to the people on the barge -- the captain and his flamboyant, invariably fat wife and maybe two or three messy little tads.
My father called to the caretaker, Mr. Johnson, from the end of the bridge, and he would arrive at the landing about the same time we did. We would pile onto the ferry and help him pull to the other side. And we were immediately transported to a world of enchantment. Pulling the ferry always looked like great fun and seemed to be a very simple skill, but from time to time someone would not get the hang of it and pull himself off the stern into the river. Usually this called for merriment all around, but on one occasion it was tragic, when one of our caretakers took the plunge and drowned.
Returning back up the steps, even in our youth, was not quite as much fun as going down. We frequently returned, though, after dusk so there were glowworms and fireflies to see, katydids to hear and at the street car tracks, the thrill of lighting a torch of rolled-up newspapers to flag down the street car.
Mr. Johnson was a thin, kindly and somewhat formal man of few words, and we could not imagine life without him. He was always there. He normally spent his time sitting on the steps of the clubhouse whittling on a small billet of cedar heartwood. As long as I have been a member of Sycamore, I don't remember ever seeing a dead cedar on Sycamore or on Ruppert Island or in the nearby flood plains, and I never remember a cedar log drifting by, but Mr. Johnson always found enough to keep him whittling all day long, every day. He was never seen with a log or stump and I never saw him prepare his billets, but he always had a supply, about four of five inches long and an inch or two in diameter. He was not a carver, just a whittler, paring the wood down in long strokes. I suppose that he used the shavings as fire lighters, but I never saw him do so. Whittling seemed to be an end in itself. Mr. Johnson was the father of Boots Johnson, who founded the Sycamore Store and the grandfather of Mickie Johnson, the local florist.
In those days the clubhouse was low, built in a typical Maryland river bottom board and batten style and white-washed, well suited to its placement. The locker rooms were spacious and the lockers were large, really big closets with standard-size closet doors. Mr. Stodder and Mr. Partridge had the best lockers, which was appropriate to their high status in the club and in the world of affairs outside the island, not that any of the members cared a fig for anyone's standing away from our islands.
There were many members and guests on the island, and time was spent in catching up on the events and gossip of the day. Some were swimming, some were canoeing, some were playing tennis, some were playing softball, and some were doing what one lawyer member, Paul Rogers, called plain and fancy sitting.
The tennis court was a popular gathering place, with a couple of long benches so the non-players could watch and visit with the players. Individual styles were evident, because in those days people played the way their personalities dictated and many a member was applauded for his heroic effort and fancy strokes, which had little to do with winning the game but had a great deal to do with his standing with the audience, which happily clapped and hooted at interesting efforts. On one occasion in a hotly contested match, one of the hard-pressed stalwarts called time out, ran down to the river, soaked his head, ran back dripping wet and continued the match. The name of the winner of that memorable match is lost in the rust of time, but I'm sure we all thought that anyone with the discernment to supplicate the gods by immersing his head in our sacred Ganges deserved the blessings of the gods for his efforts.
The club had a tennis championship every fall, which suited our family just fine, as my father defeated Mr. Tuck, the traditional club champion, and thereafter held the title making him hero to all the kids, and, we supposed, the adults as well. Harold Gray, a member and professional photographer, always took action shots of the play, and on occasion the pictures were published in the newspaper with a brief account of the tournament, which gave tennis an aura not shared by the other activities. Harold Gray also took action shots of canoeists shooting the rapids. He paddled tripods and heavy equipment up to Difficult Run and Stubblefield Falls to get his pictures.
The club had another professional photographer, Abdon Ackad, who maintained a studio in Washington, and it was unthinkable for any member to fail to have Donnie take panel pictures of the great events of his life, weddings, infants, family portraits and the like. We all felt proud of his skill and success.
The baseball games took place in the middle of the island, with home plate down near the twin sycamore trees and the outfield up towards the clubhouse. Games were informal and varied between team play and two or three knocker. The ball was very soft with outseams, and not many people could hit it much beyond second base, except John Loehler, who could hit a long ball, perhaps up on the roof of the clubhouse; with non-playing members scurrying to get out of the way. Kids and adults played together. We loved those adults for permitting us to join in.
Of course there were canoeists on the lagoon, in the river, and going back and forth helping friends to launch canoes. When canoes were put in the water there was a practiced ritual. First the canoeist rolled out a little carpet that ran the length of the canoe, then he positioned the backrests, the cushions and the paddles. Wives and girl friends were carefully handed into the canoe, and although some took to the bow paddle, most reclined in comfort among the pillows and allow the tips of their fingers to dabble in the water while the men and boys paddled bow and stern.
Everyone canoed, if only to gather water from a spring on the Virginia shore. One of the first duties on arrival for most families was to put out a canoe and paddle over and down river to a simple dock not far above the dam and walk up along a trickling rill to one of two large springs bringing back a couple of pails of water--one to drink and one for cooking, cleaning up and dowsing the picnic fire. Of course the springs had keepers (crawfish) and the run-off had salamanders, tadpoles and minnows, always of interest to young boys.
Members took great pride in their canoes, and holes were quickly patched with bits of canvas and hot pitch which was ironed smooth with a flat iron heated over an open fire. Flat irons, now door stops in some homes which like to exhibit a country flare, were then working tools of a master canoeist.
Everybody swam, and conditions then were a little nicer. In the spring energetic members would rake the off-shore mud with garden rakes, exposing the sandy bottom, which was comfortable underfoot and made us forget the alluvial ooze brought by the spring floods.
The largest structure on the island was the canoe house, which was two stories. It housed canoes on the first floor and a dormitory on the second, where the sexes were separated by an imaginary line or a canvas curtain hanging from a wire about at the midpoint. There were many happy nights for the young people, gathered around fires, singing and strumming instruments, and finally falling asleep in the top of the canoe house.
In those days deep and lasting friendships were established among many of, probably most of, the members. The honorary uncles and aunts who influenced and supported us as we moved from point to point through life included Reece and Deena Thompson, Kalil Ackad (Donnie's brother), Paul Rogers and Margaret Rogers, Charlie and Jane de Maine, John and Virginia Loehler, Frances and Esther Cole, Ed and Blanch Wilcox, deLoss Smith, Harry and Mildred Lowenstein, the Cash sisters, Mollie Wayman, Roger and Ruth Gessford and many others. Memory fails me, but were all part of the golden aura of Sycamore Island.
Roger Gessford was the long-time editor of the Islander. The arrival of the Islander at members' homes was an anticipated event not only for the reports and gossip but -for Roger's unfailing sense of humor and goodwill. He probably spent less time on the Island than many of the others, but his words evoked the spirit, the camaraderie and the humor which made us proud to be part of the endless seam of friendship, sharing the joy and magic of Sycamore Island.
The big social events of the year were the annual regatta and the Halloween party. The regatta had the usual competitive events, topped at the end with tilting, which was fun for participants and spectators, and was usually won by John Loehler, our strongest and most competitive member. There were a couple of non-competitive events. In one, Harry Lowenstein would cause his canoe to pass the reviewing judges without the use of paddles or hands, propelling it by rhythmic body movements from a precarious position on the gunwales at the stern of the canoe; and, for another, a group of sturdy paddlers would pass by in the club's war canoe, maybe 25 or 30 feet long, kneeling on the bottom and paddling with great strength and speed.
For the Halloween parties, which were costume, music was provided by Victrola and by a trio of members, Francis Cole on piano, Paul Rogers on guitar and Harry Lowenstein on ocarina. It seemed to us that Francis Cole invented the style later made famous by Jerry Lee Lewis, with a lot of rhythm mixed with clowning and banging. A great favorite was Barnacle Bill the Sailor, which the men sang with gusto, but the women, at least some of them, deplored. (My mother, for one, found it ribald.) The parties tended to look like animated Norman Rockwell paintings, with children and adults mixing happily together.
Workfests have always been part of the joy and fun of Sycamore, and everyone has memories of them. I recall my brother Snowden, who was always a do-it-now type and impatient. He'd take charge and order action because he regarded the cogitations of his betters (engineers and college men) as unnecessary delay. I also recall my son Henry at an early age. When Lillian Cash and her sister capsized, gathering firewood up river, and returned dripping wet to tell their story, he asked me how Miss Cash could have fallen in the rabbits.
Sycamore Island was a gathering place of people who had found happiness together and refuge from the ravages of the great depression, but the old ways suddenly terminated with the devastating flood of 1936. Members stood on the bridge and watched the river tear away the canoe house and then the clubhouse, and when the waters receded everything was gone. The Island returned to vegetation just as it had been from time immemorial. A culture had been destroyed. I was away from home at the time, but I remember my mother's account, one of the saddest days of her life, as she told of the wrench to her spirit as she watched the waters lift the old clubhouse and float it down the river among uprooted trees and flotsam passing by from upstream.
The old days never returned. The club entered the most difficult decade of its history. The canoes were gone, the tennis courts were gone, the canoe house was gone and the clubhouse was gone. Many members had no faith in restoration and simply gave up, allowing their dues to lapse, and never returning. Others were split over how to rebuild. One faction wanted to leave the Island as nature had found it; another wanted to restore it as it had been; and the third wanted to build a clubhouse on stilts so as to avoid another destruction by flood. Fortunately the faction led by John Loehler prevailed and a lucky thing it was, because a near repeat of the 1936 flood occurred soon, but the waters passed harmlessly through our steel supports and our clubhouse was preserved. We had lost the beauty and charm of the old clubhouse, but we had kept our club. John was an architectural engineer of skill and great prominence, being among other things the architectural engineer of the Washington Cathedral. He designed and oversaw the construction of our clubhouse as you see it now, a man who has earned great honor in the history of our club, the victor in many a regatta race and tilt, a man who regularly picked up a 17-foot Morris or Old Town Canoe, casually lifted it above his head and carried it to the river without help; and who designed our clubhouse and saved us from the rampages of the river from 1937 to date, almost 50 years. We can dare think that our clubhouse will survive another 50 years because of his skill of construction and design.
Following the flood two thirds of our members quit, and many of those who remained had difficulty paying their dues. We extended time for payment over and over to keep even our reduced membership. At the same time the funds for the construction of the clubhouse were raised by non-interest-bearing notes, which were slowly paid off over the years by drawing lots at the annual meeting. Many members, when told their lot had been drawn, forgave the debt. By their generosity we recovered our financial health earlier than could have been expected.
Our Albert Gallatin was Kalil Ackad, an official of the Crane Co., and wise in the ways of finance and business. In our slim years he protected the funds of the club with great strength of character, refusing to sign checks he deemed unwise disbursements, even if regularly voted and approved by the members and urged by the officers. Slowly, penny by penny and dollar by dollar, we climbed back to financial security. How many clubs can boast even in the great prosperity of the present time that they have no debts and an investment portfolio? Please, spenders desist. Your financial success was obtained by the thrift of those great members who preceded you and brought your club from the verge of bankruptcy and despair to its present prosperity.
The old order passed in 1936, and the new order began to trickle in. There was no waiting list. We were glad for every person who wanted to join us. Slowly new leaders developed and a new spirit took over. We never rebuilt the tennis courts or the canoe house, and the weekend dormitory parties were never restored, but a few people built cabins and gave a continuous presence of members on the island. One cabin was occupied by a member who kept a small seaplane in the river, moored by a rope dangling from the trunk of a large sycamore tree leaning over the lagoon. I never did understand how he managed to miss the submerged rocks in the river, but he did and was with us several years. Another cabin was occupied by Bob Crowder, who had married his childhood sweetheart, Betty.
There were sporadic efforts to resume the regattas and Halloween parties, but the reduced membership made it difficult to get enough participants. A shining light among those making an effort to revive the spirit of the regattas was Lucy Brisebois, who had a special gift for entertaining children. One of her successful contrivances was to give each child first prize, and I was always astonished as the children happily showed first prizes to their parents, undiminished by the knowledge that the others had also been awarded such prizes. Mary Mulford also developed a custom for the children, having them decorate an outdoor Christmas tree for the birds, but so far as I know the custom ended when she left the club.
Nature fills vacuums, and a new form of social life developed on the Island. The unlikely source was Wirt Kinsley, a rather blunt individual whom one would never associate with social graces, but Wirt loved to cook, was skilled at it, and was a demon worker. He began a series of cook-outs where he bought, prepared and cooked food over a fire of oak logs and fed great food to one and all, varying from fillet mignon to barbecued chicken and all kinds of side dishes. Out of that gruff exterior came a unifying force of great benefit to the club. A totally different force of magnetic charm came from Monte White and his wife, who had the God-given skill of unifying the action of large numbers of people. These disparate personalities helped the club members to establish a new social order, and who can say that it was not as good as that prevailing in the old days? One couple helped to bring us together by tragedy. The Ben Whites had a precious little daughter suffering from leukemia, and we all watched with aching hearts to see her gradual decline. Her dear parents recovered from grief by adopting a daughter roughly the same age, and we watched her enrich their lives, and ours, with this triumph over tragedy.
In the new dispensation we were proud to have members who had made their marks in the outside world. Adolphe Berle, Assistant Secretary of State, and one of the acknowledged intellects of his time; David Barry, who had left Ireland in protest over the troubles, was a naval architect and designer of the amphibious attack ship for the Navy; Myron Avery, the creator and organizer of the Appalachian Trail and the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club; John Cover, distinguished professor, government official, one of the important founders of the C & O Canal Association and a voice in the National Park Association; Jim Johnston, an expert on the chemistry of fragrances, a distinguished professor of Georgetown University and the only one of us who had lived among the Laps; and Dr. Charles Cake, an expert on public health. I daresay that there were many others of equal or greater stature. Our little club has had as distinguished a membership in proportion to its size as any, and in addition, we had many others distinguished by their behavior and character who were influences of good for all of us.
I recognize that we members of Sycamore care less about the distinctions our members have earned in this world than the meritorious service they have rendered to us as participants in our revels, and I must mention one or two in this category. One who has earned our eternal memory and gratitude was Ed Wilcox who selflessly served our club from his earliest days to his death. At one time or another I believe he held every office and served on every committee. He supervised and personally wrote the first big revision of the by-laws. In his unofficial capacity he was a member of the kitchen cabinet of the other officers. Ed gave time, attention and advice to every officer, every committee, every member. No task was too large or too small for Ed, and he sought no glory for himself. He was willing to lead and he was willing to support others who wished to lead. The good of the Island and the club was his constant attention.
When the Park Service threatened to take away our bridge over the canal, it was Ed who, patiently in meeting after meeting, talked them out of it. When the Park Service tried to move the walk over the George Washington Memorial Highway at a point a mile or so up river, it was Ed Wilcox who persuaded them to retain the walk at its present location; and it was Ed Wilcox who went with me to interviews with the government officials and architects and persuaded them to design the width and curvatures of the walkway to make it easy to carry canoes from one side to the other; and when the Park Service tried to take our islands away from us by eminent domain, it was Ed who worked with me to refine our defense and write our brief and appear before the proper committees of Congress and interdict the attempt. And when Bob Venables lost his life to Little Falls, it was Ed who led the search party. Bob's body was never found, but mine was and I'm here to tell the tale because of Ed. I can truthfully say that our club would not be the successful venture it is today if Ed Wilcox had not joined us and devoted a substantial part of his life's efforts to our welfare.
Another person I must mention is my father, Dr. Horace H. Custis, who was affectionately known to members as Doc, a sign of humor and respect for his earning a Ph.D at a young age when that distinction was rare at any age. My father joined the club early, regularly bringing his little family of three boys, later expanded to five boys, and teaching them swimming, canoeing, ping-pong, pool, ice skating and other activities at Sycamore. Doc loved Sycamore Island. He probably has spent more hours of time on the island than any other member past or present. He attended all meetings and he spent Saturdays, Sundays and holidays at the club, all through his working life and every day at the club after he retired. He was not deterred by heat, cold, rain, snow or thunder and lightning. His only exceptions were Christmas and Easter, absence from the city, and illness which was seldom. We watched him climb the steps after heart attacks and strokes, just as Mr. Partridge had done years before. Although Doc was president many times, his lasting imprint was made when he was the spearpoint of the successful efforts to admit women as members, which was a departure from his naturally quiet and conservative pattern of life. I wonder if Sycamore will ever have another member so devoted. The beautiful bald cypress growing near the landing was planted in memory of Doc, one of the best friends Sycamore Island has ever had.
By singling out Ed Wilcox and my father, I mean no disrespect to the other members who gave us their time, attention, work and funds. Of course there were many. Our club has brought out the best in people and I wish my memory and my wit were adequate to honor them all. I will leave the more contemporary times, at Sycamore to others. We have current members of note, including our own John Thomson, Phil Stone and his nature walks, and a caretaker of note, Ken Fassler, and I hope the editor will find a Plutarch to record their merits.
Among the caretakers from the old days were tall Ed Hawkins, black, with his dignified manner and his beautiful and obedient Chesapeake Bay retriever, and quiet Frank Davis, who was with us for so long, but the most memorable one of all was Pete Brennan, a real old mariner, with tattoos and salty ways, grumbling and complaining, following his captain's orders, though this time his captain was not the man on the bridge but the captain of the Island (an honored post held by unsung heroes in all generations of members).
When Pete retired from the blue water he followed the old man of the sea to put an oar on his shoulder and walk inland until someone asked him what it was, then settle down. Luckily for us he found his question at Sycamore. As far as I know Pete was the only man or boy at the Island who could scull a boat, and the members watched him with admiration as he sculled around the lagoon. He was not so carefree on the ferry, however, probably because salt water had no counterpart, His station was forward, and anyone who innocently stepped in front of him was gruffly thrust aside.
I have saved the best for last. We have had Island romances and Island beauties. Many a courtship was begun or carried on at Sycamore. The glorious trees hold their secrets, but I will tattle a little. Paul Rogers courted and won Polly at Sycamore; Don Conner courted and won Claire at Sycamore; Wyrth Baker courted and won Kay at Sycamore; Bob Crowder courted and won Betty. I must add that I began courting my wife at Sycamore in 1932 and I am still doing so in 1985. I am sure there were many others, and many a marriage was cemented at Sycamore whether it began there or not. Every one of the young women I mentioned was beautiful; and so were others, Virginia Loehler and her daughter Charlotte, Esther Cole, Deena Thompson, Mary Mulford, Alice Whitman, Elizabeth (Jane deMaine's niece) and still others.
In my years at Sycamore Island, our club has overcome three major crises: the devastation of the 1936 flood, the ravages of the depression and the ruthless efforts of the Department of the Interior to take our islands by eminent domain. Our members by indomitable effort have overcome them all, and though threats can return to frighten us again and calamities known and unknown befall us, these members have preserved our islands for present members and for generations of members to come.
I have watched over Sycamore Island for 65 years or so, and when my time comes to pass on, I hope I can join those great men and women who seek nothing better from their Maker than a celestial Sycamore Island, preserved for us for all time.
Let blessings be on Sycamore Island, and on all who gather there.